As we head to the end of the year we begin to reflect on events through the last year. A highlight for us, I think, has been the sale of the stem cup. This stands out because of our history, our location in Stoke-on-Trent the capital of ceramics, and the development and transformation we have seen this year of our College Road site and the Cadman building.
Pottery classes were first introduced in College Road accommodation in 1907 and the School of Science and Technology opened in the Cadman building in 1914. We were at that time North Staffordshire Technical College. In 1929 Ernest Thornhill bequeathed us his remarkable collection of over 250 oriental ceramics. He wrote to our Governors telling us that he would like us to use the collection for study purposes. We received the collection for safe keeping during the war in 1940 and he died in 1944. After that we don’t know what happened to the collection until in 1975 Professor Flavia Swann, Head of Department History of Art Design and Film, found the collection in 2 cupboards in the University.
Ernest had no known connection to either the world of art and ceramics or the College. He was in the records as a retired company Director and a chemist. Perhaps it was the draw of Stoke-on-Trent the heart of the pottery industry, and the excellent reputation of the Ceramic Technology department, that brought the collection to us. As for his motivation to put together this collection – I guess he just had a love of ceramics. In his note to the Governors Ernest stated specifically that he wanted students and people to ‘be able and allowed to study the pottery and porcelain pieces by handling them.’
In following our story, it brought back to me a book I read a couple of years ago, ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal which tells of a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke miniature sculptures passed down through 5 generations and surviving the 2nd world war in a mattress. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter with a love of art that has clearly passed through generations. This book connected objects and places, as does our story, but also I was struck by the tactile nature of our appreciation of art aligning with the desire of Ernest for his collection to be shared not only visually, but to be handled and explored.
The sale of the most precious piece within the Thornhill collection, the stem cup dating back to 1425, begins our journey towards creating an appropriate setting and space to display the full collection, but also as wished to enable interaction with it. The cup was sold at auction for £3.6 million. The auction took place in a fitting location, the Liang Yi Museum in the heart of historical Hong Kong. We have not lost this central piece as we have had replicas created by Mr Zhu from Yun Zwei Ceramics in Jingdezhen, renowned for its ceramics industry.